I grew up in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, in a two-bedroom apartment instead of a shepherd’s hut, surrounded not by flocks of white sheep but by packs of buses and electric trains. And yet, I’m a peasant at heart. I’m drawn furiously to the Bulgarian mountain; in love with the Bulgarian village. And so, I’m drawn to the stories of Petar Delchev – collected in two slim volumes that I hope will one day find their way to the heart of the English-speaking reader.
Born in 1971, Petar Delchev (Петър Делчев) graduated from a technical school, then joined the Bulgarian army as a border guard. He tried his luck at university, but never completed his two attempted majors. A certified sailor, he spent time sailing the Black Sea. At one point, he owned a small carpentry factory, at another he installed billboards, constructed spectator stands for beach volleyball matches, organized kickboxing tournaments. Lately, he has been restoring ruined village houses, managing a tailoring factory… and, of course, writing fiction.
Mr Delchev published his debut collection – Trun Stories (Трънски разкази) – in 2006. Trun (Bulgarian for “thorn”) is an ancient town near the border with Serbia; the region is poor, its villages decaying, its people wild. Their tongue is peculiar – a dialect that sadly will be lost in translation. But Mr Delchev’s dialogue is strong and vivid, and I’m sure will burn with life in English, the way it burns in Bulgarian. The stories are translatable, because the characters, though uniquely Bulgarian, are also deeply human. Like the shepherd, who in hopes of turning his life around, accepts a fatal challenge – to kill a lone wolf, barehanded. Or the mother who, desperate to protect her honour, takes the life of her unborn children. A father descends into madness, his daughter with child from a dead man; a priest hangs himself beside the church bell, heartbroken by his flock’s godlessness . . . Yes, these are not light-hearted stories for the light of heart. And neither are the three long tales in Mr Delchev’s second book – Balkan Suite (Балканска сюита) – based on Bulgarian myth, legend, historical fact; they are a product of, as their author admits in an interview, meticulous research.
Meticulous research too lays the foundation of Mr Delchev’s third book – Casting for a Messiah (Кастинг за Месия) – his debut novel, published in Bulgaria last December (Ciela 2012). The year is 2054 and a small island in the South Pacific is hosting an unusual assembly – thousands of Christians, officials from all world denominations, have gathered in hopes of overcoming their age-old differences and creating one unified and all-powerful Church. An omniscient third person point of view; a cast ranging wildly from clergy to journalists to captains of the Russian navy and Chinese mobsters; a page count that goes well over five hundred; and the intention that this is only part one of two books make Mr Delchev’s novel a grand, daring, if flawed undertaking.
That the novel has flaws comes with the territory. It’s admirable that some of these flaws arise from Mr Delchev’s bravery and great ambition; it’s sad that others spawn from the fact that in Bulgaria today, there are no editors who work with the author, help him develop an idea, push him to write and then rewrite and then rewrite some more. But this is perhaps a subject of another conversation.
I’m talking now of Mr Delchev’s bravery; of his books rightly loved by a faithful following of Bulgarian readers; of his words, still untranslated, which one day, I hope, will ring out in many foreign tongues.
Photograph by Justine.toms